No 'act of God': Kolkata flyover collapsed under weight of corruption

What grinds my gears about the West Bengal administration is how lackadaisical it is and always has been.

 |  5-minute read |   01-04-2016
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Calcutta (Kolkata for some) is quickly getting a reputation for man-made disasters and, as a Calcuttan, I am frankly tired of switching on the TV to watch yet another tragedy unfurl in HD. I have seen people jump to their death in the Stephen Court fire of 2010, I have seen patients trapped by the AMRI hospital fire of 2011 and the heritage New Market has been on fire so many times that it should just be rechristened Sivakasi.

The flyover that collapsed in Calcutta's central district of Burrabazaar is only the latest failure in a string of infrastructural mishaps. As I am yet again forced to watch my fellow Calcuttans lose their lives (21 at last count) to the carnage of twisted metal, I can't shake the feeling that it could have been my family or me under that rubble.

My office on Zakaria Street is less than a kilometre from the accident site. It is an area so antiquated that in his latest book Kalkatta, Kunal Basu calls it "a little Baghdad of the old". My mother regularly visits the legendary bazaar to purchase saris, textiles and spices.

This is the difficult thing about living in a country that has zero accountability for its actions. The citizens of Paris and Brussels are currently paranoid about where the next bomb may go off but at least their enemy is external.

As a Calcuttan, I always have to be on my toes due to collapsing buildings, bombs, fires, political violence, insane traffic, crazed mobs and, now, collapsing flyovers. What a European calls a near-death experience, I call March 31 afternoon. The average Indian is fighting so many odds that each time he returns home in one piece, he should be given free Big Bazaar points.

Also read - CCTV footage of Kolkata bridge collapse

What grinds my gears about the West Bengal administration is how lackadaisical it is and always has been. When calamity strikes, they are usually as stunned as a deer caught in the headlights. This is not even the first flyover to have collapsed in the city. Every day a Calcuttan loses his life because of the state's negligence pertaining to bad roads or poor fire-safety inspections. Each time there are half-hearted promises of "stringent action".

kolkata-colapse-pti_040116110906.jpg Mamata Banerjee is blaming the CPM because the flyover was proposed under its administration. 

The whole of my city looks like a Noida flat that will never be completed. There are bursting pipes and sluggish cranes and sparks flying all over this kingdom of rust. Today's pain is supposed to be tomorrow's gain but, like in the Bond film, tomorrow never dies in Calcutta.

The accursed flyover was four years behind schedule and it is just one of the many ongoing projects. The snail-like construction not only inconveniences the ordinary citizen but also causes damage to the completed phase that is left to the elements.

As a nation we love locking the barn door after the horse has bolted. The blame game over the collapsed flyover has already begun with political parties firing salvos to make each other appear incompetent. Mamata Banerjee is blaming the CPM because the flyover was proposed under its administration. And yet, she had no problem taking credit for Calcutta's landmark Parama Island Flyover which also began construction under the CPM rule.

She changed the name of the flyover to Ma (because, duh) and put her face on billboards and newspaper ads like she had invented sliced bread or something. Mamata Banerjee gets to cherry-pick depending on her mood: all her failures are due to the previous administration but all her successes are in spite of the previous administration. If she has her way she will definitely turn Calcutta into London, albeit the London of 1916.

Also read - It takes a flyover to fall to know lives are cheap in Kolkata

Iragavarapu Venkata Reddy Construction Limited (IVRCL), the company that was commissioned for the flyover's construction, is now left passing the buck. They say that this tragedy is "an act of God". If God was the one always in charge then perhaps He should have been paid the Rs 164 crores that it cost to make this godforsaken project. As an atheist, I find it amusing how God has been turned into the dog that ate the homework.

The IVRCL went bankrupt in 2014 and as such there is a chance that substandard materials were used for the flyover's construction. Or perhaps they are right and God is like a scorned ex-girlfriend who just kicks humans in the gonads every now and then.

As long as we are passing the buck, perhaps it's worth a mention that in his seminal book Calcutta, Geoffrey Moorhouse blames the British for poor planning of the city. He uses archival documents to extrapolate how the British civil officers took care to make their part of town like Old Blighty (with roads 40ft wide as per UK law) while ignoring the rest of Calcutta that accommodated the great unwashed. This is why South and North Calcutta are poles apart.

The former is a roomy Arcadia full of parks and leafy lanes and golf courses whereas the latter is a labyrinth of narrow lanes that were made for donkey-carts. The Calcutta Improvement Trust was set up by the British in 1911.

However, before any improvements could be made to the city, New Delhi was declared the new capital of the empire. The English babus left Chowringhee for Connaught Place, leaving behind a ramshackle Calcutta in their wake. North Calcutta seems charming in a Dibakar Banerjee or Sujoy Ghosh film but when you commute through those lanes every day, like I do, the charm wears off.

The Indian taxpayer feels entitled to question the value of subsidised education if it doesn't settle well with his notion of nationalism. Why then is he so afraid to question the government on infrastructural provisions? For too long we have accepted shoddy facilities while paying more and more taxes.

We need to be more firm in our demands and should be outraged at the loss of lives instead of simply thanking our stars that it wasn't us this time. While several Indians lay struck by adversity for no fault of their own, the media was instead busy discussing and showing us a cricket match.

Before we could lose as a cricket team, we lost as a nation.


Abhishek Sikhwal Abhishek Sikhwal

Abhishek Sikhwal is a Calcutta-based writer.

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